Providing Local News to Rural Americans Faces Legal Hurdles

By Ethan Klapper

It's been a difficult task for rural satellite television subscribers to receive local news that's actually local, but there's hope, since a law that governs the satellite television industry is up for reauthorization this year.

Charlie Ergen, founder and CEO of DISH Network, and Martin Franks, executive vice president of policy, planning and government relations for CBS Corporation, disagreed at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month over whether current law prevents local stations from expanding local news coverage for satellite providers.

“The local station controls that copyright so there is no reason right now that your constituents couldn’t be delivered the in-state local news product that you want,” Franks said, addressing Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. “There is no impediment in the law or regulation to doing that now.”

Ergen disagreed with Franks’ assessment. “I don’t believe that’s true,” he said, arguing that local news stations don’t control the copyright to all the programming they air, since it comes from multiple sources. “I’ve met with Gannett Broadcasting and I’ve tried to bring in the local news and talked about doing regional concepts,” he added. “Ultimately … they said we own the copyright to our local news but we don’t own the copyright to the national news and our local news feeds are interlaced with national stories so when President Obama is talking last night that’s a national story and national NBC owned the copyright.”

The hearing was held as part of this year’s reauthorization of the Satellite Home Viewer Act of 1988 (SHVA), which governs the satellite television industry and is reviewed every five years. The Judiciary Committee has oversight of any copyright issues that emerge from the law.

When the SHVA was amended in 1999, it included a provision, known as "local into local," allowing satellite providers to provide local broadcast channels to subscribers. However, the providers are not required to provide the service, and they may charge a fee for it, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

The big issue facing consumers in rural areas comes from a discrepancy between designated market areas (DMA) drawn by the Nielsen Company and actual state lines. For example, residents of Bennington, Vt., are physically located in the state of Vermont but are in the Albany, N.Y. DMA and receive news from Albany.

However, both men agreed that if a subscriber has access to two feeds of the same network, there would be a copyright issue that would have to be properly negotiated.

“I do think, and we don't have a representative from sports leagues here or other copyright holders, and I don't want to speak for them -- I think that they would have to renegotiate their contracts around what I call, expanded local which is to expand the definition of local to include your current local and an adjacent DMA,” Ergen said.

The issue was personal for the committee’s chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who said he uses a satellite dish when he’s home in the Green Mountain State.

“I live in a rural area in Vermont,” he said. “Nearest neighbors are half a mile away. I have what is sometimes referred to as the state flower in Vermont, the satellite dish on my roof.”

Senators complained that their constituents are unable to receive in-state programming because they live in a DMA where the major city is located in a different state.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said the issue is prevalent one for constituents living in the northwestern corner of his state.

“My constituents want to know why they can only get news about what’s happening in Minnesota’s government rather than the laws and budget of Wisconsin,” he said.

Ergen urged the committee to expand the "local into loca"l definition to include the adjacent DMA.

“It's really people in Vermont want to see Vermont,” he said. “And it's simple as that. It's not complicated.”


Photo Courtesy of the National Association of Broadcasters


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